Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : May 27th 2015 Contents "Advocates for social justice
have highlighted the power of
language in reinforcing stereo-
types, particularly those relating
to the unequal social status of
women, people with disabilities
and people from various ethnic
and racial backgrounds. Mental
illness belongs on that list too."
This is how New Zealand s
Mental Health Foundation prefaces
its guidelines to journalist in a
publication titled Words matter --
a guide for media.
"The MHF encourages journal-
ists to think actively about the lan-
guage they use when reporting on
mental illness and suicide," it says.
I agree that insensitive reporting
of mental illness and suicide is a
cause for concern in the perpet-
uation of stigma and in institu-
But the issue is wider than report-
ing and deeper than reporting on
mental health and suicides.
As I m contemplating my next
sentence, Paula Zhan who hosts
a TV show on Investigation Dis-
covery Channel uses her best dra-
matic delivery and says "But he
is a paranoid schizophrenic... and
has a cocktail of mental health
She is describing a man who
turned criminal in his delusion,
and it makes for good entertain-
ment as she builds viewers antic-
ipation of the act to follow. And
I think it s moments like these,
repeated sufficiently, that have the
prospect of branding all people
living with schizophrenia as violent
I usually tune in to two radio
stations billed as "talk" and
"music." One had a Friday open
forum recently. Citing the most
current issue deemed a serious
infraction by the government, one
caller said vehemently, "This is
madness. These people need to go
to St Ann s" and the popular host
laughed the most full-bellied,
throatiest I had heard.
In that hour, there were three
other references to St Ann s and
madness, one even coming from
the host who jokingly reminded
us of David Rudder s calypso, that
says "This is not a fete in here,
this is madness."
I m certain that these are
instances of media as entertain-
ment and that most of these pro-
nouncements are without malice,
said in jest and in the usual "Trini
But the best words with the best
intentions can be misconstrued.
It s worse when words are used
without understanding their power
to contribute to discrimination.
And while media may be "reg-
ulated" sufficiently to produce a
body of sensitive language in
reporting or commentary, social
media is a construct that has a life
and a morality of its own (or
One Facebook page, listed Top
15 names of Crazy Woman with
the caption, "You on the list? You
really that cray, cray tho...?"
The post has garnered over half
a million shares, one proudly by
a woman who found both her first
and last names on it. I noticed it
because it was reposted on the
timeline of an FB friend. My unan-
swered question was: "Is this
another way to perpetuate stigma
under the guise of humour?"
Then I saw this impassioned
note from another FB friend
Nicole, titled, Reflection on pro-
fessionals and how they speak
about/to persons with disabilities.
"In my travels both on Facebook
and off I have heard or seen the
following from professional, uni-
versity educated people," she says.
"A person who used the word
retard on FB to describe something
dumb and when I called him out
on the use of that word that is
offensive, he schools me on being
too politically correct. This is a
She cited many instances of
ignorance/prejudice and conclud-
ed, "Looking at these incidents
with educated, professionals...
clearly tells me we have a lot of
work to do to educate society
about persons with disabilities, in
general and mental health. From
top to bottom, captain to cook."
Such are the frustrations and
anguish of those of us who live
and thrive with disabilities and
who long for a better-informed,
more sensitive society in this global
Social media chips away my
hope for sensitive use of language.
Mainstream media holds the better
prospect for leading the change in
how we regard disabilities.
Hopefully, I ve established that
our use of the term "madness"
interchangeably with "St Ann s",
calling vacillations bipolarity,
labelling moral deficits as schiz-
ophrenia, and a wide spectrum of
other things by editors, politicians,
prime minister, citizen T&T, radio
announcer, et al, is to be recon-
There s always the temptation
to use stereotyping language
because it conjures an idea imme-
diately and connects with people
either in common understanding
or in humour.
But it won t be that funny or
tempting if you, a family member
or friend becomes that global sta-
tistic of one-in-four living with a
mental illness. (Even though one
of the worst bipolar "jokes"
recently came from a family that
has lived with mental illness for
The MHF says, "Our choice of
words can reinforce stereotypes
and contribute to various forms
CAROLINE C RAVELLO
Use your words carefully;
you may have to swallow them
• Caroline C Ravello is a
professional and media
practitioner with over 30 years
of proficiency. She has been
living/thriving with mental
health issues for over 35 years.
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Wednesday, May 27, 2015
MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS
"A person who used the word retard on FB to describe something
dumb and when I called him out on the use of that word that is
offensive, he schools me on being too politically correct. This is a
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